There couldn't be a more pressurized situation in high school softball then the one that faced
Alexander Central (Taylorsville, N.C.)
freshman Chelsea Wilkinson
in the 2009 North Carolina AAAA state championship game.
Alexander was winning 2-1 in the seventh inning when a fielding error put North Davidson runners on second and third with just one out.
But Wilkinson calmly struck out the next two batters, clinching the school's sixth state title.
"I wasn't nervous at all," Wilkinson said. "This is going to sound surprising, but I was more nervous in regular season games. I felt comfortable. It was really exciting."
In fact, the only time Wilkinson seemed uneasy was when it came time to celebrate.
"It's funny because we have it recorded on the TV, and then you go back and watch it I didn't know to react," Wilkinson said. "I kind of spun in the circle and then Lauren (catcher Lauren Elder) ran out there."
Elder tackled Wilkinson and the celebration was on. In her first two years, the 5-foot-10 pitcher went 58-3 with a 0.39 ERA and 706 strikeouts in 363 innings. And she's getting even better this season.
"She seems like she was a baby looking back at 2009," Alexander coach Monte Sherrill said. "She's so much more mature now and her mastery of the pitches is so much better."
Wilkinson entered this week a perfect 15-0, including 11 shutouts, five no-hitters and four perfect games. Her ERA is currently 0.37, she has struck out 192 and walked just 10, and opponents are hitting .083 against her as Alexander has risen to No. 2 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Softball Rankings
Elder, who has caught Wilkinson since they were both freshman starters two years ago, sees up close how intimidated opposing batters are.
"You can tell when they're watching her in the bullpen, they're already starting to think, 'Wow, she's a great pitcher.' Even before the games she's in their heads," Elder said.
Not everyone gets to see Chelsea Wilkinson's best stuff, because you have to get someone on base first.
"It makes her mad when they get a baserunner. That look always comes out," Sherrill said. "She's going to keep them out of scoring position. It's almost like she gets amped up a little bit more. Her awareness is heightened. She really bears down."
Wilkinson throws in the low 60s with a great 6-to-12 riseball and mixes in a changeup and slow curve.
"A lot of pitchers say they throw a lot of different pitches," Sherrill said. "She's clearly one who throws the correct spin on each pitch, with a great deal of velocity."
But her biggest weapon is the riseball, a pitch that was taught to her by UNC-Charlotte pitcher Gina Allen during the summer before Wilkinson's freshman year at Alexander. Once Wilkinson learned how to throw it, she perfected it by throwing to her father Robby Wilkinson, a former baseball player at Winthrop.
"He sat on the couch (in the living room) and we would just spin it back and forth to each other, every single night," Wilkinson said.
Perhaps it was a sign of her ability that, as the hours and repetitions added up, nothing in the living room was ever broken.
Alexander actually had a two-time all-state and two-time conference pitcher of the year on the staff — Megan Laxton, now an outfielder at Lenior-Rhyne — when Wilkinson tried out her freshman year. But Wilkinson's obvious potential made it an easy decision for Sherrill when it came time to name his 2009 starter.
"I'm always going to play the best players, and you could tell right from the get-go she was going to be special," Sherrill said. "I wasn't sold on her ability to master the mental game, but as the season progressed she matured at a fast rate and brought us the state championship."
Alexander Central has seen 40 players to college over the past 10 years, but Sherrill said that Wilkinson was the first player he's had that generated interest from West Coast schools. Still, Wilkinson committed to N.C. State, in part so her family could continue to watch her play.
But first Wilkinson hopes to add to Alexander Central's record number of AAAA state titles, and she'll likely have some substantial individual accomplishments along the way.
"She doesn't get rattled on the mound," Sherrill said. "A lot of times 14-16-year-old girls don't have a proper mental game where they can handle a little adversity but she does. She's the total package. As long as she stays healthy, I think she'll break every state record that's on the books."Harold Gutmann covers the state of North Carolina for MaxPreps.com. He lives in Durham and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.